Young Artists in Balboa Park Productions Share Tales of Favorite Toys

Young Artists in Balboa Park Productions Share Tales of Favorite Toys
“Edward Tulane” and “Coppélia” feature the magic of toys
Thursday, March 3, 2016
By Nina Garin, originally appeared on KPBS
Balboa Park is on the verge of being overrun by toys.
The San Diego Civic Youth Ballet and San Diego Junior Theatre are getting ready to stage shows in which the lead characters aren’t human, but magical playthings.
Edward Tulane
Photos, Marshall Williams
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by San Diego Junior Theatre, is about a handsome china rabbit that gets lost at sea and goes on a decades-long journey of self discovery. It opens Friday and runs through March 20 at Casa del Prado Theatre in Balboa Park.
And San Diego Civic Youth Ballet’s “Coppélia” is tale about a young man who falls in love with a life-like doll he sees by the window. The classic ballet will be performed April 6 through 10, also at Casa del Prado Theatre.
Because toys play such an integral part in both shows, we asked some of the actors, plus each show’s director, to share memories of their most treasured toys.
“When I was a little kid, one of my favorite toys was Thomas the Train, but my Thomas was different. With my help, he wasn’t stuck on his rails — he would come to life in my mind and I would play with him on anything and everything.” Cameron Britt, 14, plays Edward in “Edward Tulane”
“When I was a kid, I had a stuffed dog named Baby that was part of my family. For over 10 years, my older brother and I gave him a voice (which I can still do to this day!) and in the mid-90’s, when I first started doing theater in middle school, my mom would sneak him into the theater in her purse so that, in his own special way, Baby could share in that experience.” Ira Bauer-Spector, director of “Edward Tulane”
“The toy that stands out the most in my mind was my blue Power Wheels Jeep. I would drive it all around singing ‘This Will Be An Everlasting Love’ by Natalie Cole at the top of my lungs. Driving that Jeep gave me the feelings of everlasting love and also endless imagination. I had my Jeep for 10 years, sharing it with my younger siblings until the wheels finally gave out.” London Barber, 15, plays Mayor, Wedding Guest and Dr. Coppélius’ understudy in “Coppélia”
cozicbrothers2_t700“Santa brought me a dollhouse and I would play with it all the time. With my imagination running wild, the dolls would do crazy things and copy whatever was happening in my real life.” Riley Cox, 10, plays Lucy the Dog in “Edward Tulane”
“A small heap of love, with two light pink satin ears. Kiki was my cuddle buddy, she whispered to me soft words of love. Together, my bunny and I share the memory of my first ballet, along with my realization of the aspiring ballerina twirling inside of me. I believe some of our most trademark moments are not remembered because of what we saw, but who we saw them with. Kiki agrees.” Sofia Manriquez, 13, plays a Village Girl and Big Spanish Doll in “Coppélia”
“A toy, by definition, is something to play with. My favorite and most treasured toy is my brother, Giovanni, who is also in this show (as Bryce). When we play together, our imaginations run wild with make-believe stories and games. I have a feeling we’ll never outgrow each other and the memories we have will last us a lifetime.” Pierre Cozic, 13, plays Bull in “Edward Tulane”
“When I was little, my parents bought a big wooden dollhouse with a family of dolls. I became totally obsessed with that dollhouse! I would dust all the furniture and then arrange it the way that I liked it. I used to just stare at it for hours, imagining all the things the family would do, and coming up with ridiculous stories for the dolls.” Elsie Molenaar, 17, plays Swanilda in “Coppélia”
“As a child I had a brown and white stuffed dog that I brought with me wherever I went. I loved the movie ‘Lady and the Tramp,’ and I had dreams of one Christmas morning opening up a beautifully wrapped gift and finding a real puppy inside, just like the opening scene of the film. Funny enough, I have never had a pet dog, and would now call myself a cat person!” Danika Pramik-Holdaway, director of “Coppélia”

Junior Theatre – Seen in San Diego Union Tribune

UTSanDiego article features JT Production Manager Tony Cucuzzella and Executive Director James Saba —

Celebrating the Essence of Junior Theatre

Times change, but the San Diego Junior Theatre spirit abides
By James Chute, May 16, 2015
JT Production Manager Tony Cucuzzella
JT Production Manager Tony Cucuzzella in action. Photo, Sean M. Haffey, UT San Diego.
San Diego Junior Theatre executive director James Saba is not ignoring the Balboa Park Centennial Celebration.
The organization, along with the San Diego Civic Youth Ballet and the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, just received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create an exhibit at the Casa del Prado Theatre to showcase the history of the three youth-oriented institutions and the San Diego Civic Dance Arts in Balboa Park.
It’s just that Saba and the 67-year-old Junior Theatre have a more important anniversary to celebrate.
Junior Theatre veteran production manager Tony Cucuzzella has been with the institution exactly 20 years.
“He’s not your typical person who works with kids,” said Saba, the Junior Theatre’s executive director since 2013. “Yet every kid who comes through here has a deep admiration for Tony. He’s a big constant. There’s someone who is here when we open the doors to the time we shut them, and that’s Tony.”
Cucuzzella’s anniversary is significant because he embodies the spirit and values that are Junior Theatre. Certainly the institution, which touts itself as the oldest youth theater in the U.S., has grown over the decades. It now serves thousands of kids, offers hundreds of classes, and presents 10 main-stage productions on a budget in excess of $1 million. And its successful alumni, whether in the New York theater scene or outside of theater, attest to the efficacy and professionalism of its programs.
But somehow, like Cucuzzella — who is also a designer, playwright and has directed and acted as well — the organization has maintained a certain can-do, let’s-put-on-a-show flavor.
“What Junior Theatre does more than anything — and it’s not about making kids into stars — is build self-confidence and give kids tools so they can be successful no matter what they go forward with in life,” Cucuzzella said. “We teach them how working as a group is how you make something happen. It happens to be a show, but you can take those tools and apply them to anything outside of theater.”
As you would expect from Junior Theatre, the celebration won’t be over the top. Junior Theatre families are going to honor Cucuzzella with a picnic, and it’s likely he will be sharing a cake or two with students during the year. The theater will also place a plaque on one of the seats in the Casa del Prado Theatre in his honor.
“The thing is, the centennial begs to be celebrated and Tony does not,” Saba said. “We want to make sure we sneak in this year as much as we can to show how much we appreciate him.”
San Diego Junior Theatre Executive Director and Alumnus, James SabaSense of belonging
Saba knows exactly what Cucuzzella is talking about in the self-confidence category.
While still a student at Grant Elementary, an uncertain, 10-year-old Saba joined Junior Theatre in 1977. The company, which was created in 1948 at the Old Globe (at that time the San Diego Community Theater), then operated under the auspices of the city of San Diego, as did the Civic Youth Ballet and the Youth Symphony.
“I remember the first rehearsal I had in here,” said Saba, during a recent interview in the Casa del Prado Theatre. “I was right in front, near where I am right now, and I was looking out into the theater and I was learning choreography and I was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, this is amazing, this is amazing — I’ve finally found a place for me.’ ”
The production was “Tom Sawyer,” and one of the company members was Christian Hoff, now a Tony Award-winning Broadway star with credits that include “The Who’s Tommy” and “Jersey Boys.”
“There were a whole slew of people involved, and I bet I’ve kept in touch with 50 percent of that group,” Saba said. “I mean, really in touch. That was the introduction to the group I would grow up with in life. We would get together and share our milestone moments, and we continue to do so.”
Saba left Junior Theatre in 1984, the same year the theater became an independent, nonprofit institution, as did the Youth Symphony and Youth Ballet (although the city continues to support the three organizations by providing space for them in the Casa del Prado). He attended Southern Methodist University in Texas as a theater major before returning to Southern California, where he was active in San Diego and Los Angeles theater and TV. But he couldn’t escape Junior Theatre.
He came back to help in the early ’90s as interim director during a rough patch for the theater, and left for points east just before Cucuzzella’s arrival. Cucuzzella was called in to rescue a production of “Romeo and Juliet” and welcomed the opportunity of a stable job, an all-too-rare occurrence in the theater.
Tony Cucuzzella“I started literally during tech week, and I was like, ‘OK, kids doing theater, and kids doing Shakespeare, that’s going to be interesting,’ ” Cucuzzella said.
“I was trying to learn the show and solve some problems backstage, and I remember suddenly just stopping and listening to what was happening onstage: Here was a 13-year-old Romeo and a 16-year-old Juliet, and they knew what they were saying, they had a command of the language, and the level of the performance they were giving just impressed me so much.
“The kids still, not surprise me, that’s not the right word, but they continually reach a level and beyond that we’ve set for them. It’s amazing to watch.”
Junior Theatre spirit
While Cucuzzella found his calling at Junior Theatre, Saba was freelancing as an actor and director on the East Coast and working with the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre at Hope College in Michigan. He was thinking about settling down when he heard about an opening for executive director at Junior Theatre.
“What I was thinking in coming here is there’s no place that is in the marrow of my bones more than this organization,” Saba said. But he was apprehensive about whether Junior Theatre had changed too much in his absence.
“When I was here before, it was a patchwork of all different kinds of kids, with all different backgrounds,” he said. “I don’t know how we ever found each other in the same room because we were only united by our love of theater and the arts. We were all kind of misfits elsewhere.”
“And I thought, ‘If it’s not that same spirit, I think I’m going to have a harder time working for the place.’ Because some organizations such as ours can get kind of (pageant-like). It’s very much about being the little star with a bun on your head and an ‘Annie’ voice and that type of thing. And Junior Theatre was never like that.”
When he returned, he found the Junior Theatre spirit in people like Cucuzzella and the students, who oddly resembled his younger self and his colleagues. Some were children of students Saba had worked with two decades ago.
“I thought, if I can’t raise money for this, I can’t raise money for anything,” said Saba. “I am a walking poster child for my cause, which is Junior Theatre.
“It’s my life, and it changed my life significantly. I want to make sure I’m part of that change in other kids.”
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